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A Birthday Note


On February 22 I celebrate Chopin’s birthday, not George Washington’s.  Two hundred years ago today, one of the greatest Romantic geniuses was born near Warsaw, of French and Polish parentage.  His amazing talents were already apparent when he was eight years old.  By the time he was 16 he was writing music of permanent value, and the best masters in Poland said they had no more to teach him.

Chopin’s style was influenced by those he adored most — Bach and Mozart — and by Polish folk music, but in every sense is uniquely his own,  Its classical refinement resulted in a higher proportion of excellence and a lower proportion of inferior work than in the case of any other great composer.  Though he could not match them in output, Chopin had a melodic gift as great as Mozart’s or Schubert’s.  Of all the major composers his arena was the most limited: except for 6 solos with orchestra, some chamber music and some songs, his entire corpus consists of about 250 pieces for solo piano.  These works form the core of the Romantic piano repertory and include much of the most poetically subtle music of all time.  The unparalleled originality of Chopin’s harmonic language influenced a centuryful of composers from Schumann and Wagner to Rachmaninoff and Debussy and continues to be felt today.

Chopin said that he didn’t understand Beethoven, but on the evidence of his successful struggles with the sonata form, he understood enough.  The process of “symphonic” development by relentless application of repeated motives suited the Austro-German tradition, but it didn’t suit Chopin.  It sufficed him to devise his own approach to narrative structure that is perfectly original, idiosyncratic, and valid.  He achieved triumphs in the larger genres fully as well as in the miniatures for which he was most famous in his own time.  The vivid pianism of his youthful concertos (he wrote both at age 19) completely overcomes their orchestral weaknesses.  The improvisatory qualities of the scherzos and ballades define a visionary world that no later composer could approximate; the sui generis forms of the F minor Fantasy, the Barcarolle, and the Polonaise-Fantaisie, mighty monuments from Chopin’s last years, show that he was at the height of his powers when he died of tuberculosis at 39.  We are still learning from his example, singing his nocturnes, and dancing with his 56 mazurkas.  Happy 200th Birthday, Fryderyk Chopin, beloved master and greatest of composers for the piano.

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